From the living room of an apartment building, bay windows look out onto a courtyard, a bit of street, and the corresponding windows of other apartments. Through those windows are people of all types and stripes, unaware they’re being observed. What do you see? What should you see? Rear Window is the kind of film you suspect Alfred Hitchcock made just to see if he could, an experiment in restricted perspective that nonetheless is one of the director’s strongest theses on what it means to go to the movies.
In one of Hitchcock’s most masterful, understated opening sequences, blinds – not so unlike stage curtains – rise and the camera pushes through those big, inviting bay windows and introduces us to our unsuspecting cast of apartment-dwellers, going about their morning, until it comes back through the apartment, scattered with action photography stills and fashion negatives.
Our setting belongs to photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). Jeff’s been laid up, stuck saddled with a cast all the way up to his hip, during a still, sultry summer; he’s spent his time, we quickly gather, people-watching through the windows and avoiding a deeper commitment to his girlfriend, the wry sophisticate Lisa Freemont. With all the binoculars and long-focus lenses Jeff has at his disposal, casting characters across the way like “Miss Torso” and “The Songwriter,” he doesn’t notice that Grace Kelly wants to play nurse. But when one night Jeff believes he witnesses a murder, the conflict he and Lisa draw themselves into becomes anything but a game.
It’s a ballsy thing to decide your entire movie is going to take place in a single room (except when it doesn’t), around a passive, reactive protagonist (except when he isn’t – and those instances are smartly set off visually). But Rear Window does and is, and is as suspenseful as any glossy, globe-trotting thriller. Hitchcock ties the film specifically to Jeff’s vision – through his binoculars and camera lenses we see the apartment courtyard, and his perspective is inescapable. Hitchcock forces you to observe observation for long stretches – although not as long or as wordlessly as in Vertigo; there’s plenty of witty banter provided by screenwriter John Michael Hayes – and so what happens to the fictional observers, the pleasure they draw from watching, affects the actual audience as well.
Through masterfully constructed montage and point-of-view editing, we watch Jeff construct his murder mystery and come to the same conclusions about the ominous Mr. Thorvald (Raymond Burr), who left his apartment several times in the night with a suitcase, and left the next morning without a sign of his bedridden wife. Jeff has a devil of a time convincing Lisa, an old war buddy turned detective (Wendell Corey), and his saucy nurse (Thelma Ritter), but the more spying they do, the more it seems to make sense that Thorvald gave her the axe. The suspense in the film is built into the very act of looking for definitive proof of Thorvald’s guilt. Hitchcock basically powers a movie on the illicit thrill of peeping, made engrossing through dynamic camerawork, framing, and pretty ingenious set design. Yet there are moments, including one visual stunner in which Grace Kelly’s beauty seems to hold the film stock itself in her thrall, that poke in to say, shouldn’t you be doing something more worthwhile with your time?
The entire cast’s performances are a strong argument for eavesdropping. The characters in the surrounding apartments are a collection of the stereotypical storylines we enjoy going to the movies for: new romance, lonely hearts, mysteries, thrills, creative struggle. Kelly, her fashionista far more rough and ready than you’d initially expect, near steals the film, with stiff competition from Ritter’s quips and Stewart’s comic timing. They’re exactly the sort of people we want to be stuck in an apartment with. However fuzzy your rear window ethics might be, Hitchcock’s spritely pacing, inspired, sardonic humor, and charming players will convince you to kick back. Papers longer than Jimmy Stewart’s leg can go on about the construction of Rear Window as a reflection of the viewing experience, but don’t let all that fool you into thinking the film is anything approaching dull.
Yet movies, at least movies made in the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style, are the lives of strangers, constructed through a particular lens for the enjoyment of interlopers as stuck in the front row as Jeff is in his wheelchair. The Hitchcockian twist in Rear Window is nothing more than that the story begins to affect watchers we thought were immune. Would we be here, as trapped, helpless, and terrified as Jeff, when Lisa ventures into the danger of the murderer’s apartment if we hadn’t dared to look? It’s a pleasure to watch and it might well be Hitchcock’s most elegant and accessible masterpiece, but Rear Window will make you pause before you tear open your next Netflix DVD.
The playful experimentation and engaging performances make Rear Window a classic, but it’s a Great Movie because of what the film has to say about the medium itself.
Do Not Drink: every time there is a point-of-view shot through a film camera or binoculars. You still have so much more to give.
Take a Drink: for every glamour shot of Grace Kelly.
Take a Drink: for every shot that covers the entire apartment block in one.
Take a Drink: for every shot that could not have been seen from Jeff’s vantage point.
Take a Drink: whenever Jeff or Lisa leave the apartment.
Do a Shot: for Hitchcock’s cameo, of course.